Dec 21, 2010

Christmas Edition of The Secret History of Art: Fran Angelico's "Annunciation"

Fra Angelico
Museo Diocesano, Cortona, Italy
Guido di Pietro, later called Fra Giovanni di Fiesole and better known as Fra Angelico (1395-1455), was born in Tuscany, near the town of Fiesole, overlooking Florence.  There, as a young man, he took his monastic vows, on 17 October 1417.  As a Dominican monk he lived and worked primarily at the monastery of San Marco in Florence.  He was already a painter when he joined the monastic order, as a document exists that indicates two payments made to Guido di Pietro for paintings done in the church of San Stefano del Ponte.  It was traditional for monks to take a new name, and so Guido di Pietro became Fra Giovanni (Fra being short for “frater,” “brother” in Latin).  As his renown as a painter flourished, he was referred to as il beatto angelico, the blessed angelic one, for his sublime, gorgeous paintings.  This nickname was made official in 1982, when the Pope beatified him (one step below sainthood).

            Fra Angelico originally trained as a manuscript illuminator, and several manuscripts on display at San Marco are attributed to his hand.  He lived for ten years at a Dominican monastery in Cortona, for which he painted frescoes, now all destroyed.  From 1436-1445, Fra Angelico lived and worked at San Marco.  His relocation to the heart of Florence was a good career move, as it placed him at the center of artistic world.  Politics also pulsed through the monastery.  The Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’Medici, kept a cell at San Marco reserved for his private use, just down the hall from Fra Angelico’s, which would later house Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who instigated the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, encouraging the riotous destruction of any art in Florence that he deemed insufficiently somber and moralistic.  Fra Angelico painted achingly lovely frescoes in each cell at San Marco, every one unique.  The Biblical scenes depicted involved increasingly complex images for meditation, with the more complex works painted in the cells reserved for older monks.  Fra Angelico also painted a much beloved fresco of the Annunciation in the hallway of the monastery, which he was often asked to reproduce, with slight variations, for wealthy patrons.  This Annunciation is one such reproduction, by the artist himself for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole.

            In 1445 Fra Angelico was invited to Rome to paint for the pope.  He frescoed the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in Saint Peter’s for Pope Eugenius IV—this was later, sadly, demolished under Pope Paul III.  One early biographical source writes that Fra Angelico was offered the position of Archbishop of Florence by the pope, but he refused, recommending another friar in his stead.  He was a simple man, content with a quiet monastic life which he could devote to religious painting.

            Fra Angelico worked during a time when painting styles were shifting.  Throughout the Middle Ages, artists strove to create works that look much like a less-refined version of what Fra Angelico created—Gothic works with either rudimentary or non-existent perspective, little foreshortening, and without the illusion of three-dimensionality.  These works were often gilded, with Jesus or Mary featured much larger than other figures.  The emphasis was on dazzling the viewers with gilded backgrounds and bright blue lapis lazuli (the pigment for which was, at the time, the most expensive item that you could buy, by weight).  Hands, faces, and bodies were often elongated (much like the Gothic architecture which they were painted to inhabit), and facial features were fairly generic, not meant to recall a real person or the face of a model.  The preferred medium was egg-based tempera paint, rather than oils. 

This traditional painting style was being superseded by two simultaneous movements which were the avant-garde of their time.  In Northern Europe, artists like Rogier van der Weyden (see the next entry) and Jan van Eyck were creating miraculously realistic, minutely detailed works in oil paint, which permitted far greater precision and subtlety of color and shadow than did tempera.  In central Italy, and most of all in Florence, the likes of Donatello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and Paolo Uccello among many others developed a mathematical technique to produce the illusion of three-dimensional depth in flat artworks (paintings and relief sculptures), using single-vanishing point perspective and foreshortening.  Their goal was to create the illusion that the viewer was looking out a window onto a real scene, something that artists like Fra Angelico were simply not trying to achieve.  It is therefore inappropriate to pit one style against the other, Fra Angelico versus Piero della Francesca, as their aims differed.  Fra Angelico preferred the traditional painting style, in which lovingly-rendered figures were used to inspire meditation, not astonish through illusionism.

            The magnificent Annunciation seen here (another, brighter version was painted a year earlier and hangs in the Prado in Madrid) manages at once to provoke awe, and yet feel intimate.  The Biblical moment depicted is when God sent the Angel Gabriel to tell the young Virgin Mary that she will bear God’s son.  Mary is interrupted while reading the Hebrew Old Testament, and looks up to greet the angel.  The intimacy of the scene, the electricity that one can almost feel flowing between Gabriel and Mary, makes sense when we consider that Gabriel’s words literally impregnate Mary with the Son of God, Gabriel being the vehicle of the Virginal Conception. 

It is useful to note a common confusion made by many, including pastors and PhDs.  The Annunciation is not related to the Immaculate Conception.  The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, through intercourse between Mary’s mother, Saint Anne, and her father.  This intercourse was made clean, immaculate, after the fact by God, so that Mary would herself be clean, conceived without sin.  Gabriel’s words to Mary result in the Virginal Conception, a different theological concept that is widely mistaken for the Immaculate Conception, a much later dogma established by Saint Anselm in the 11th century.

            Mary sits under a portico, walls and porticos referring to her virginity, which was likened to a walled garden.  There is a basic, but not mathematically-sound sense of perspective, which may be seen in the bench behind Mary—a brief reference to the artistic revolution of perspective and foreshortening that was taking place all around.  The garden outside is the Garden of Eden, from which we see Adam and Eve expelled.  It is, technically, the fault of Adam and Eve, who committed Original Sin, that Christ was needed at all.  Had they not sinned, there would have been no need for a Messiah.  Christ’s death reversed Original Sin, and therefore the Annunciation of his conception is the direct result of the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from The Secret History of Art!